Father Zona?

By Louis A. Zona

My grandmother Christina was the most devout person that I have known. She would sit on her back porch for hours reading her Bible or simply pray for the well-being of her family.

When I was young, I asked Grandma why her lips moved even when she sat quietly on her porch. ”I’m praying,” she responded, “for you and the whole family. I’m talking to God.“

Believe me, if there were anyone on the earth capable of having the Almighty listen, it would have been Grandma Christina.

My mother was very Catholic. She repeatedly told me the narrative of the “Infant of Prague,” a statue of a youthful Jesus that apparently survived the bombings during World War II of the great cathedral in Prague. While everything around the statue of Jesus was destroyed, it remained untouched. Faithful believers saw it as a miracle. So Mom owned a plaster reproduction of the Infant she adorned with beautiful clothes that she had specially made.

Mom sat before the statue and recited prayers written by the famous Christian author Norman Vincent Peale and some of the writings of Bishop Fulton Sheen, the well-known television personality whose weekly program reached millions in the 1950s.

Mom and grandma loved Psalm 23 that, of course, reads: Adonai (The Lord) is my shepherd. I shall not want …” She laid claim to the popular prayers of all three religions and incorporated each in her daily devotions.

In the end, our connection to the spiritual realm is extremely personal. One often sees articles written by people who not only believe in the escapism a spiritual realm  provides but also the power stemming from it to heal or to bring about peace in a trouble-laden world.

It is interesting to note that fire tends to be an element of praise in virtually every religion. Catholics even light candles to serve as prayer extensions. Long after a prayer has been said, a small candle lit by the person is sent up to heaven.

It is curious that nearly every vision of hell describes a fiery environment just as fire is symbolically used to send prayers up into heaven.

When I was a kid, my teacher, Sister Mary Irma, tried to paint a verbal picture of heaven for us. She told us to imagine the thing that we love most on the earth and to multiply it nine times. “That” she said, ”is heaven.”

As a young boy whose whole world was baseball, I imagined that heaven must be nine baseball fields in a row and me running on them in total joy. Nine baseball diamonds in a row would not be everyone’s concept of paradise. But please, no harpists need apply.

Grandma always hoped that I would consider the priesthood as a vocation.

She was savvy enough, however, to realize that the ways of the world are handled differently with each personality and my view of the world and hers were not in sync. To borrow a line from Seinfeld, ”Not that there’s anything wrong with that.“

Nevertheless, there was a priest by the name of Father Tom Smith who played an important part of my childhood – probably at the time Grandma was thinking of the priesthood for me.

Father Smith had an amazing background. He had danced on Broadway as a June Taylor dancer (those of you old enough to remember the Jackie Gleason Show remember that the June Taylor dancers performed each week on that program and ushered in the star of the show, Jackie Gleason).

Father Smith left the lights of Broadway for the candlelight of St. Joseph Church in New Castle, Pa. As an altar boy, I was able to see Father Smith show off his dancing skills before the mass began in the room behind the altar.

He’d tap dance on the floor and then jump onto a table, continue, and then back onto the floor. To see anyone perform at that level was a special treat. But a priest – wow!

Father was also a very proud Irishman who handed out treats to all the kids in the school on St. Patrick’s Day.

I remember when he came into our second-grade class on this special day and told us that as a priest, he could not wear green but only black but then would take off his jacket to reveal a gigantic shamrock pinned to his shirt.

Of course, the kids loved it. But as I think about it, perhaps Grandma and Father Smith might have been in cahoots about the priesthood and me. When he heard that I would be attending public school the next year, he called my mother to ask why.

Mom told him that we could not afford Catholic school any longer and that I would attend Pollock Avenue School in the fall. He then told Mom to stop by the rectory when she could. So Mom and I went to see Father who handed Mom a white envelope.

Mom opened it to find enough cash to pay the tuition for the Catholic school. When Mom told him that she could not accept the money, he responded, ”It is not from me but rather from The Holy Spirit”

 We accepted the special gift and I finished most of my education in a Catholic school.

Somehow, I lost touch with Father Smith over the years. I would have loved to thank him again for caring for a poor kid from the south side of New Castle.

If I had to create a list of individuals who touched my life so deeply, Father Tom Smith would be high on that list.

And as for the priesthood, my grandma’s prayers were simply not enough to get me over the finish line!